James Rosenquist (b. 1933) established his uniquely American voice in the late 1950s, supporting himself for much of that decade by working as a billboard painter. It was the smoothly painted, vibrantly colored, large-scale images of consumer items, movie stars and random elements of popular culture that became the subjects of his painting. In the last decade, beginning with the Speed of Light series, Rosenquist has been fascinated by the notion of time. Using Einstein’s concept of space-time continuum to chart a new pictorial frontier, Rosenquist delivers a barrage of questions with considerable complexity posited by time.
The artist currently lives and works in Aripeka, Florida.
Rosenquist believes that the success of a commission depends on the relationship between the parties involved. So in March 2010, when his dealers Bill Acquavella and Michael Findlay proposed the commission of a mural-size painting for the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, Rosenquist was intrigued. He had long been fascinated by the mysteries of the brain. What’s more, the commission was being financed by the art collector and Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn for a research and hospital complex being designed by the architect Frank Gehry. Rosenquist had met Wynn and liked him, and Frank Gehry was an old friend. The necessary alignments were in place.
But it was not an easy assignment. The building posed problems. It looked like a bombed out rubble, collapsing in on itself. Even when compared to Frank Gehry’s other fantastically shaped buildings, the design of the Brain Center appeared wild and chaotic, an unruly heap of broken parts, like the degenerative brain disorders its research was meant to cure. Brilliant as Gehry’s concept was, it was a difficult space in which to see art. Its walls were fractured, covered with odd-angled windows, interrupted by pillars and blinding shafts of light. Rosenquist traveled to Las Vegas to see the space. It was at moments like this that his experience and sense of scale proved invaluable. It was easy for him to see the big picture and identify where in the towering space the commission belonged. He accepted the commission and after receiving its dimensions, he went to work. A few months later, while on a trip to Italy, the concept for the commission came together (hence the painting’s Italian title, Cervello Spazio Cosmico which translates to “Brain Cosmic Space”).
“It’s about the amazing infinity of the brain and the mysterious infinity of cosmic space,” Rosenquist explains. The soaring 20-foot high by 10-foot painting is a paean to the mysteries of neuroscience and space. Set against a star strewn cosmos, the X-ray of a brain floats over a bouquet of flowers which burst from a tangle of silvery leaves and vines. The twisting tendrils may represent wires in a brain on the outs with itself. On a more optimistic note, the flowers in full bloom may carry the suggestion of growth and resolution.
Only the silvery leaves have been depicted as melting hubcaps. Is it a reference to the Aripeka fire and the cars it destroyed? There were at least four cars in the studio that day, including a red Ferrari and a 1960’s aquamarine Chevrolet. Rosenquist seldom drove them. But he liked to tinker and fix them up. Once restored, they sat like relics in the mammoth studio. Burnt cars and molten hubcaps were found in the Aripeka debris. In the context of the Las Vegas mural, do the hubcaps represent loss or salvage?
“It’s a zinger,” Rosenquist announced to Michael Findlay when he finished the painting for the Ruvo Brain Center. Rosenquist was pleased and not just because the painting was a success, but because it was a turning point. It was the necessary antidote. Rosenquist knows how to get a job done with dispatch and clarity, and the commission, with its time and size constraints, offered him the perfect platform. It was the challenge he needed to move beyond the devastating fire.
Excerpt from “James Rosenquist, A Space Odyssey 2012” by Judith Goldman
James Rosenquist, Multiverse You Are, I Am
Acquavella Contemporary Art, Inc.
September 10 – October 13, 2012